Architectural trends in the GCC

Big and expensive projects, outlandish designs, rapid construction and ever changing skylines exemplify today’s architecture in the GCC.


Often referred to as an architectural playground, the Gulf region is, despite plunging oil prices, enjoining a construction boom. According to MEED Projects, the value of projects planned and underway in the GCC in 2015 is USD 172 billion, the highest on record to date, while Ventures Onsite report from July expects total value of construction contracts across the GCC to reach USD 194 bn in 2015, of which the building and infrastructure sectors alone are estimated to hit USD 141 bn.

A new Alpen Capital study predicts that the construction industry in the GCC region will grow at a CAGR of 11.3 percent from USD 91.5 bn in 2013 to USD 126.2 bn in 2016. The rapid growth of cities is the main driver of the construction in the GCC, which is already home to so many outstanding architectural world wonders like the Burj Khalifa, Aspire Tower, Bahrain World Trade Centre and the Royal Clock Tower.

All of those buildings became iconic landmarks, representing the region’s wealth and building development characterised by a stunning mix of Eastern and Western influences.

Cost-effective and high-quality design

Experts agree that it isn’t easy to describe architectural trends in the GCC – generalising leads to simplification without understanding that aesthetic values are always changing and evolving.

US architect and former Associate Dean for Research and Development at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Doha, Peter Chomowicz describes the main architectural trends in the region: “I’m not sure I can paint the ‘region’ with one brush. I see several trends, one – a desire to bridge ‘tradition’ with ‘modernism’.

Msheireb is a great example, from the planning principles to the pedestrian streets, while being very responsive to climate, Msheireb seeks some sort of synthesis. Its architectural vocabulary is very modern, I might even say modern from the 1930s as it is reminiscent of work in Germany and Italy from this period. Even the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is reportedly designed to resemble a desert flower in plan.

I think this is a big stretch of the imagination and also mostly marketing rhetoric but behind such statements we see the sentiment that architecture carries cultural meanings that embody what and who we are.”

So a general trend is not to repeat Sheikh Zayed road and just build more and more bizarre and fantastic looking structures. The second trend is the massive investment in infrastructure.

Stephen Frantzen, director of P&T Architects, which won last year’s Middle East Architect of the Year Award for hospitality with the Viceroy Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, sees the main trend in retail design, where the market is going from large retail malls to one-storey strip malls like the one located on the Beach at Dubai Marina and several malls along Al Wasl Road in Jumeirah.

Viceroy Hotel, P&T Architects.
Viceroy Hotel, P&T Architects.

“The other trend is going towards more efficient designs for the residential projects, which means less wasted areas and funky designs that are irrational,” says Frantzen.

Thomas Behr, director of the New York office of US architectural company Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which worked on large-scale projects in Abu Dhabi, Manama and Kuwait, agrees: “Architectural design in the GCC region is trending away from bombastic form making and becoming more functional, responsible, and more quietly iconic. Clients emphasise both cost-effective and high-quality design, as well as give considerable thought to long term investment”.

Behr says these trends are similar to those in the mature markets of the United States and Europe. “Notably, buildings in these regions are more sustainable than a decade ago. Similar to the LEED® building certification, initiated in the early 21st century, Qatar and Abu Dhabi have launched their own green building legislation.”

Adding to Behr’s view, CEO/Chief Architect of Arab Engineering Bureau in Qatar, Ibrahim Mohamed Jaidah speaks more on sustainability being the driving force behind current architectural trends in Qatar and the region: “In Qatar, the architectural trend continues to develop on the basis of maintaining cultural identity. Regardless of how contemporary the design may be or whom it is designed by, this is driven by the policy makers. Regionally there is tendency for more minimalist contemporary architecture. However in the mega projects you tend to see some sort of local identity conveyed, like in KSA.”

He adds that Dubai is an exception because of the magnitude and scale of the projects and diversity in population.

Raya Ani, founder of the New York and Dubai based RAW-NYC Architects.
Raya Ani, founder of the New York and Dubai based RAW-NYC Architects.

Raya Ani, founder of New York and Dubai-based RAW-NYC Architects, who also won last year’s Middle East Architect of the Year Award for a leisure project – Doha’s Aspire Sports Complex – is not a trend follower.

“For me each project is unique and when I meet with the client, I listen to them as to what they want to accomplish, then I help them navigate through their ideas and aspirations. We start the design process which involves our thought process while researching and communicating with the client. We always have a larger vision that responds to the client’s initial thoughts and needs and we take it further. This comes out of our design thinking process,” she describes as the company’s creative process.

Jaidah shares a similar stance: “Understanding the client’s requirements is important. One has to be very considerate to the intended location of the project, its constraints and orientation. These are simple steps to follow which allow for a successful design that belongs to its surrounding.”

Understanding the market

Stephen Frantzen, director, P&T architects.
Stephen Frantzen, director, P&T architects.

“It is difficult to compare the GCC region with other regions of the world but there is a clear common trend in making more rational and efficient designs. In addition to that it is trendy for most cities to have the occasional extravagant project where the project budget is less important and the wow factor is domineering. In this department GCC is almost a front runner at the moment closely followed by the Far East,” says Frantzen.

The GCC is a better playground for architectural marvel and Jaidah concurs: “Travelling the rest of the world and seeing and understanding the process, GCC allows much more space for creativity simply because it is a relatively new area for the development with fewer restrictions than in some older cities in Europe, for example.”

Peter Chomowicz
Peter Chomowicz, US architect and former associate dean for research & development, VCU Qatar

Peter Chomowicz, US architect and former associate dean for research & development, VCU QatarChomowicz adds that high-rise constructions in most other regions of the world are driven by market economics and the return on the investment to the developer. “The murky, gray area of GCC sovereign wealth funds means one never really understands why something is built.

Will Msheireb really be a good investment? I seriously doubt it when you look at the massive cost and plethora of competing projects (Pearl, Lusail, etc.) coming together at the same time. I don’t see the demand to justify the supply which means these projects are built for different reasons than investment and that sets them off uniquely from most other markets,” he says.

One of the main drivers anywhere is the demand for buildings/architecture, says Frantzen.

“Since there was very little of anything only decades ago, there is a demand for everything expected in modern or contemporary cities: new office buildings, new hotels, new residences, new institutions, new metros, new airports and so on. The next reason for success is that there is less ‘red-tape’ so that projects can proceed fast into construction mode. Reasonable labour cost is another determining factor for success. All the previously mentioned reasons attract design talents and with the sizeable market many suppliers.”

UK-based consultancy EC Harris predicts bullish long-term construction growth in the region as its data shows that by 2030 there will be over 117 major construction and infrastructure programs (projects that cost more than USD 1 bn) planned, valued in excess of USD 1 trillion.

Directly depending on region’s economy, and in particular on the stability of the construction industry, architectural business in the region is enjoying higher market levels than ever before, and the architects are competing for a piece of the lucrative cake.

“The market is very competitive, as the region attracts large international architecture firms and also maintains a strong local architectural scene. The high number of architects in the region draws a lot of competition for projects in the area, placing a downward pressure on fees and design schedules,” explains Behr and Frantzen agrees: “It is true that firms from all over the world are entering the market: from America, Europe, the Far East, Australia and South Africa on top of the regional firms. This means there are different ways to do projects and different levels of expertise and with that, very different fee levels. It can therefore be very hard for clients to understand the value of projects, but usually ‘you get what you pay for.’ However the more experienced the developers become, the better they understand this.”

To design and build in a region where every single nut and bolt is imported is very expensive. “Building cost is obviously one of the most important aspects taken into account when designing buildings, and experience is the key to meet the assigned projects’ budgets,” explains Frantzen.

“I would say cost has always been an important consideration on every project we have worked on. It is rare that we get clients that have open budgets. Our challenge has always been about balancing the budget with all the other requirements and remaining innovative,” Ani describes the situation.

How green is green building?

An important trend in the region is green building – realising the importance of sustainability, both clients and architects are now making an effort to build self-sustaining structures, be it commercial or residential developments.

This industry is growing in Qatar according to Jaidah. “It has become a part of the legislation, and sustainably designed and built buildings have tremendous value in terms or ROI, as it is proven that operational costs are significantly reduced,” he says and furthers this statement with an example of the Ras Gas HQ offices which they designed and supervised construction for: “RasGas had analysed energy savings data and their results showed that the new office building was more energy efficient than their previous HQ with 37 percent in electricity saving, 16 percent in district cooling saving and 53 percent in water consumption saving.”

In certain locations, such as Qatar, sustainable design is supported by legislation dictating that ‘greener’ buildings receive a higher Floor Area Ratio (FAR).

Rashed Al Nasaa, head of sustainability at Arab Engineering Bureau
Rashed Al Nasaa, head of sustainability at Arab Engineering Bureau

“Such legislation incentivises the addition of sustainable features into a design,” Behr explains. Furthermore, the region has witnessed the development of localised sustainability rating systems that are a main driving force for many projects like GSAS in Qatar. “Green products and systems are required in order to meet the demands of these projects and help them meet their sustainability performance goals,” Rashed Al Nasaa, head of sustainability at Arab Engineering Bureau tells BQ.

But not everyone agrees that the green building in the Gulf region is as important as it sounds – Chomowicz thinks that to build green in the GCC is impossible.

“You would think it’s very important as we hear so much about how many new buildings have a LEED classification. Masdar in Abu Dhabi perhaps leads the way with its tag line ‘Making profitable and sound investments in renewable energy and sustainable technology.’ Msheireb and Education City projects also contain centralised trash collection, renewable wind and solar energy, etc.

While these are noble efforts, in truth it is impossible to build ‘green’ in the GCC. Anything beyond a mud brick hut or camel hair tent will never be green. The two main obstacles are sourcing materials, and cooling. Almost all building materials are imported. LEED gives points for sourcing locally, but luxurious fixtures and finishes, things like Italian marble, Brazilian hardwoods, and also every nut, bolt, chair, and light bulb come on a ship from all over the world. Unless the GCC can develop an industrial manufacturing base, these buildings will never be green.

Ghanem Headquarters, an AEB project.
Ghanem Headquarters, an AEB project.

Second, the heat load from climate is one of the reasons countries like Qatar have one of the world’s largest per capita carbon footprints. The glass curtain wall buildings of North America and Europe even need cooling in the winter from the heat gain of the sun and people and electro-magnetic devices, imagine how much more cooling and thus energy is required in the GCC,” Chomowicz observes.

3D printed buildings?

New technologies, like 3D printing are entering architectural business. Recently it was announced that the world’s first 3D-printed office building covering 186 sq. metres will be set in Dubai. According to Ani, it saves time and gives the opportunity to print from waste materials. “It could be challenging from a design point of view and there are certain limitations but it is definitely promising.”

Ibrahim Mohamed Jaidah, CEO/Chief Architect, Arab Engineering Bureau.
Ibrahim Mohamed Jaidah, CEO/Chief Architect, Arab Engineering Bureau.

Jaidah doubts the viability of 3D printing in Qatar for now, simply because he foresees “a lot of environmental factors being a challenge.” In the scheme of things, Chomowicz does not see 3D printing on an industrial scale yet. “I think it is coming, but most building components are still built with traditional casting and machining techniques. However, 3D printing has become indispensable for the designer to rapidly visualise and test design and engineering concepts,” he concludes.



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